In answer, he kneed his horse and rode further into the light of the fire. The hidden voice said, “You scared hell out of me.”
“You didn’t do my heart any good either, Cotton.”
A man of middle age came out of the canebrake and Titus swung down to walk up to the fire. Even though they had known each other most of Titus’s life, they didn’t shake hands, because Cotton was a slave.
Or had been. The fact that he was alone in the dark, not far from the Ohio border suggested he had run away. That left a lot of questions. Titus had been told that the Cherokees were allowed to take their slaves with them, and Cotton had been with Bullfrog since he was a boy.
Cotton was the one who taught Titus most of what he knew about hunting, fishing, and tracking, and just keeping alive in the hills and the swamps. That counted for a lot, but Bullfrog and Salali were the Cherokee couple who had adopted Titus when his parents died. Even if Chief Ross had told them to do it, and even if Bullfrog hadn’t paid much attention to him afterward, Titus still owed them both a debt of loyalty.
Titus asked, “Why are you here? What happened to Bullfrog and Salali?”
“I’m sorry to tell you, Titus,” the older man said. “I stayed with them as long as they were alive.”
“Salali was sick all summer. By the time we left, she had no business traveling, but the soldiers didn’t give us any choice. She died two days along the trail.”
“He was hurt bad inside when Salali died. He rode all day, he ate, he laid under his blanket at night, but I don’t think he ever slept. After about two weeks, he died too.
“The soldiers didn’t want to give us time to bury him, so I carried him out of camp in the middle of the night. Those soldiers weren’t much. It wasn’t hard to avoid them. I found a nice place under a pecan tree and buried him, same as I had buried Salali. When I finished, I stuck the shovel in the ground like a gravestone and started walking north. I was already out of the camp and there was no reason to go back.”
So. Bullfrog and Salali hadn’t been the best pair of substitute parents, but Titus missed them. To be fair, he had been no prize either when they got him. Headstrong; too young to be independent, but determined to be independent anyway. He had spent most of his time with Cotton, learning Cherokee ways from the slave, the same way Cotton had learned when he came to Bullfrog as a boy.
“Was Francesca in your group?” Titus asked.
“Your wife? Why would she be with us? She wasn’t Cherokee.”
“The soldiers took her anyway.”
“That’s why you’re following?” Titus nodded. Cotton said, “I never saw her, but there were several groups that moved out at different times. She might have been in a different group.”
“Okay,” Titus said, swallowing his disappointment. “Don’t matter, I’ll still find her.”
Cotton bustled about the fire, pulling something out of the ashes. It was meat, long, slender, cylindrical. Snake. Titus didn’t mind snakes, as long as they were dead. And if they were dead, you might as well cook them. When Cotton started to tear it with his fingers, Titus said, “Don’t you have a knife?”
“Got nothing. I should have kept the shovel, but it seemed too much trouble.”
Titus went to his horse and took a knife out of his saddlebag. “Keep it,” he said as he handed it over. “I’ve got another one.” Cotton grunted his thanks and split the snake. It tasted like squirrel, and it was as welcome as a feast.
Except for munching, they ate in silence. Titus hadn’t seen Cotton in a couple of years, and the time showed in extra wrinkles. It was good to see him again.
Titus had been born to a German father who had died too soon, adopted by a Cherokee father who had not been able to handle him, and had learned most of what he knew from this black slave. Only he wasn’t really that black.
“Cotton,” he said, “how come you’re so pale?”
This story will conclude tomorrow. After all, that will be Halloween.